Thursday 13 May 2010

Endearing or Titillating?

The only way I learn things in life is the hard way. It's appropriate enough, then, that my first post be about something I screwed up. I'm going to discuss an interactive dialogue I produced and the controversy it promoted, so if you'd like to come at it clean, why not take five minutes and have a play first. As an (assumed) gamer, I'm really interested to hear your unbiased thoughts.

Spoilers ahoy. 

The Dialogue
Some time ago I produced a dialogue tree using hyperlinks in MS Word. It featured Ethie, a young, very dim girl whose mental condition, it transpired, was down to the local apothecary routinely issuing her rohypnol-like 'medicine'. It alluded to, but didn't make explicit, topics like date rape and sex trafficking. Before the player discovers the more sinister truth behind the scenario it also featured some jokes. It can conclude with the player failing to discover anything untoward; discovering the the apothecary's lecherous ways but failing to make the connection with the 'medicine'; or unravelling the truth, dealing with the apothecary, and observing the decimal point in Ethie's IQ move one spot to the right.

Every couple of weeks I go out with a bunch of non-games writers on Brick Lane in East London. We do writery things like read stuff, swap notes, and try to pour drinks without the barmaid noticing. After six weeks' drying out, my laptop had finally recovered from the glass of water I poured over it and I figured I'd celebrate by mixing things up with a bit of Ethie. I didn't particularly expect anyone to 'get it', but I was genuinely taken aback by the violently negative reaction it received.

"People say I get in the way a lot. I don't know why. I try to stand in nice, quiet spots, but somehow I always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Can we still be friends?"

The Response
Where I'd tried to write Ethie as endearingly daft, my friends saw Carry On style humour. Where I'd written genuine gratitude, they saw sexual inequality. Where I'd tried to segue from humour into darker drama, they'd seen perverse gratification.

"I just feel… clearer, better about myself. And it's thanks to you."

I don't for a second believe that this isn't to some degree down to the (mixed gender, age 30 - 50) group's prejudices. One friend's response before he'd even read the dialogue was, "Is this a writing or a video game circle?" despite his comfort with every other medium from poetry to screenplay. Someone else suggested the objective of helping Ethie couldn't be a true motivation for the player because she wasn't a real person, which is really so ignorant as to be insulting, not to mention a direct attack on fiction as a whole.

I also fully realise that I could have handled the writing a lot better. The light-hearted jokes were a risk given the context. A more believable, dramatic tone would have worked a lot better. Having Ethie's personality manifest a lot stronger in the 'good' ending would have gone some way towards better representing the gender as a whole.

Finally, I suspect there are plenty of implicit assumptions we make as gamers that render dialogues like this much more sanitary territory. We know our objective is to help Ethie; we know the game won't let us indulge in date rape; we're accustomed to unpredictable changes in tone as we wander around a game world at will.

The Real Issue
What scares me, though, is that I suspect the real problem here is how conditioned I've become to accept characters, gameplays and scenarios that would be abhorrent to a non-gamer. I know I'm not the only PS3 owner to have used Heavy Rain (as grown up, story centric a game as we tend to get) as a way to entice non-gamers into the medium. Looking back on it though - with Madison's early near-rape scene and later gratuitous, interactive stripping - it's easy to argue that parts of it were a truly vile experience.

My entire career is centred on a drive to lift interactive narrative into a more mature, balanced and valuable place. If I've simply had a good idea in Ethie that I've implemented badly, that's a cock up I can live with (or ideally correct).

What scares me is the possibility that I've been so boxed in by the established video game convention of damsels in distress and player empowerment that not only do I fail to recognise a vile piece of writing when I see it, but that I'm the one producing it. 

Download EvangelistaFinal.doc


  1. Here's your first task - read the dialogue linked to in the text, and tell me your thoughts. Did you read it before or after the blog post? Did you find it perverse? Would it be out of place in your average RPG? Does it broach relevant issues, or simply take advantage of them?

  2. I read the dialogue before your blog post. I did not find it perverse. It would fit in in a CRPG. The subject matter is unsettling and sad but the gameplay isn't exploitative.

    Then again, I've played a lot of CRPGs so I'm in the same boat as you are. Mine is not exactly an outsider's perspective. I would still claim to recognize abusive gameplay and I don't see that here.

    Maybe the laymen were put off by the possibility of treating Ethie harshly and even in effect telling her to continue to be exploited. I'm accustomed to possibilities of evil behaviour in CRPGs but it might be hard for non-gamers to confront such clearly spelled out misanthropy.

    - Jarmo

  3. I actually found it not as "vile" as incredibly, patronizingly ego-gratifying. Why, for example, does Ethie trust the player "more than anyone" or invite him over to her place later? Why is she so willing to drop giant blocks of exposition?

    The answer, I think, is that the player is after all the main character of a RPG, and consequently is the most important person in the world -- the person without whom nothing could possibly happen. Left to her own devices, Ethie will remain in eternal limbo, her story unresolved in either direction; closure to abuse is dangled as a reward for the player's willingness to be distracted by sidequests.

    In other words, Ethie throws herself at a stranger, and the stranger winds up "saving" her or "destroying" her at his whim, with barely any more effort than a simple [i]expression[/i] of caring (or lack thereof). In normal fiction, that IS a pretty horrifying prospect; in RPG fiction, where the entire purpose of NPC sidequests is to allow you to rub your ego all over the game world, it's par for the course.

  4. I think the difference is that in regular fiction, it is assumed that the actions of the protagonist are supported by the writer. Obviously this is not always the case, and some excellent works involve anti-heros or broken individuals. Nonetheless it is the "default", and anything else requires greater effort on the part of the writer to clearly portray them as being wrong.

    In any form of interactive fiction however, the choice of how the character acts is that of the player, and no longer reflects directly on the writer. If you were to offer a "bad" path of this dialogue as a standalone story, it would rightly be perceived as pretty vile. Since little is done to portray the character as a bad person (other than their actions), it would seem almost like you were supporting those actions. In the context of the choices however, it becomes pretty clear through the comparison that you consider some actions are better than others.

    However, in the context of a choice, the options that are available still reflect on the writer. If there are two choices one of which is supposedly "good" and the other "evil", that obviously reflects on what the writer considers good or evil. Often in games you even get "points" to indicate this. I remember in Mass Effect 2 [spoilers] when you do Legion's quest, you are given the choice of killing or brainwashing the Geth. All through the level, various characters argue about whether brainwashing is really a good thing to do. And yet at the end, it becomes a binary "Brainwash = 20 Paragon, Kill = 20 Renegade". I found it kind of insulting that such a complex issue, that was even presented as one to begin with, was just tossed aside, and actions that weren't really that "good" were rewarded for the sake of a binary choice.[/spoilers]

  5. Useful insights, thanks guys. Might sound like I'm massaging the ego of my first three commenters, but I think you've all honed in on the central issue - RPGs are designed around providing the player power. This defines the sort of stories we're able to tell, and renders more sensitive topics in an essentially self-concerned light.

    Incidentally, I'm writing up a post at the moment regarding decision making in games. Should be up tomorrow.

  6. Videogames are perceived as wish-fulfilment devices rather than interfaces for exploring your own morals and the consequences of your actions. They often lack social context, they often lack traditional narratives and rather than identify with characters, you embody them. Rather than evaluating their actions and motivations in terms of your own moral and ethical standards, you are put right in the middle of a zero-sum conflict with binary outcomes, with time and effort as wager.

    Games also have trouble with representation: Since the game world and interface are already metaphors for an underlying rule set, there is little room for ambiguity and nuance in them. If the metaphor is made unintelligible, the player's faith in/understanding of the rule set collapses and makes the experience frustrating or confusing.

    In the end, I think it comes down to perception: Videogames are not perceived as a medium where you explore or confront yourself. The purpose of a player's participation in a game is perceived to be the overcoming of a challenge or satisfying a win condition. Rather than question actions or explore motivations, the player is supposed to reach optimal performance according to the limits of the game.

    To me, playing a game is attempting to learn and master a system of rules represented by symbols. The story or narrative is a justification, part of the metaphor, a device for making sense of the rules and enabling me to chunk the relationship between symbols in the diegesis more easily.

    Sure, there have been a few games where the story has genuinely interested me, like Planescape: Torment, but that's a rare game where most of the "traditional game", namely conflict and resource management, is optional and peripheral to the storytelling. Most of the time, I both see and treat the story as an interface to the "real experience" of actually participating in the game system. That's how I play and design games.

    To be a bit trite, I consider Heavy Rain a very expensive and highly impractical way to experience a mediocre television show. If I want storytelling, I turn to a medium suited for it. When I play games, I play them because I enjoy and love what they are; opportunities to explore a mode of thought and sense of participation that no other media can offer. I do it because I enjoy decoding systems and learning how they work.

    If stories are to have any place in games, it is to describe the terms of the rules and game dynamics. If the game system and the story/narrative used to describe/communicate it to the player are tightly intervowen, a coherent whole will emerge.

    Attempting to reduce games to (or even make them vehicles for) exercises in hypertext by giving players choices between preset paths through predetermined narratives, strikes me as pointless. I understand why some people enjoy it, but for me it is the leftovers of a dream about what videogames could have been but most likely never will be, as games move online and becomes about shared experiences within possibility spaces rather than participation in linear narratives by different means.

    Whew. Achievement Unlocked: Sunday Rambling.

  7. This dialogue would fit in perfectly in most CRPGs. Like most game writing, there's just no truth to it.

    She talks like an average person who was told to 'pretend to be stupid', and had no time to prepare or do research. She keeps saying she is stupid and confused and doesn't know what words mean, but her speech is grammatical and precise with a wide vocabulary. She says she is punished and hurt a lot, but she still trusts strangers. Maybe you think that this is what stupid people do, but this is a baseless stereotype.

    You have to always do your homework and strive for the truth if you can, or the suspension of disbelief is ruined for anyone who knows something you don't. You can never achieve perfect accuracy, but I'm sure you can do a lot better than this.

  8. (played - got 'standard' ending, went off to find pills)

    Well - one way in which a gamer might treat this differently to a non-gamer is that gamers quickly self-train not to break the cardboard walls; you can type "use reed as impromptu whistle" into zork but part of learning the medium is learning that your own experience is diminished by that and the error message it produces? Which is to say: 'yes there is strange & wild & bittersweet terrain to be touched by looking into the lives of who stand day after endless day waiting for the hero to complete a fetch quest for them - but the reason we know that doesn't work isn't because we've learnt to be callous, but because we've learnt that emancipation is really hard to code'.

  9. Does it broach relevant issues, or simply take advantage of them?

    I don't know if you're familiar with Adam Cadre, but I've played enough games over the years that hit you with the fact that what you're trying to do is basically unacceptable - my basic feeling is that unless it's done with a rare gentleness it makes for powerful but kind of i-see-what-you-did-there art - you could put "actually we were just walking past" at the end of any tower defence game and it would be viscerally unpleasant but I don't think we'd be any the wiser about the sort of question good art tries to answer.

    I'm thinking, as an example of this done right, of this moment when I was playing Baldur's Gate I with my dad, the first time, we had Minsc and Edwin both, two shades of crazy, one good one evil, both telling us to find the kidnapped girl. So we went in, the way you do, burnt through the gnoll fortress, laid waste to everything in the way, got to the still quiet centre. And couldn't find her. And realized suddenly - that we'd killed all those hundreds on the words of two madmen, that we'd done it because of rules of genre stuck and rigid and suddenly horrible.

    And it was a bug. And I wonder if my point isn't: it works better that way.

  10. Having read through the full dialogue I feel moved to offer a slightly different perspective to most.

    .. It was good. It wasn't great, it didn't leave my mind or feelings reeling, but it inserted a blade, found purchase and then twisted, levering open a gap into which the characters crawled.

    Incidentally I merely read through it as a .doc, didn't run it as a game - Unsure of the intended method, but using openoffice the hyperlinks were inactive. Conveys the meaning well regardless, I'm familiar with interpreting the structure since studying Fallout's script files.

    Your humour didn't come across as 'carry-on' - with a grandmother sinking into senile dementia and a circle of highly intelligent/socially awkward friends, her behaviour came across as cliché but by no means unbearably so, and surprisingly.. Real. Good game writing, on par with the rpgs of the late nineties, though not up there with Fallout.

    Inevitably game-writing, though - that stilted dialogue exchange method is a relic that still changes the flavour of anything communicated with it.

    Most deserving of praise is your discipline, your self-restraint - you never too bluntly exposed the reality of the 'medicine's purpose, nor did you make it too obvious that the girl was being drugged into her state of mental weakness and amiability. You held back and left it to the player's mind to make that connection and to draw conclusions.

    Always, always a much better method than "3 rats in my cellar, I pay 3 gold, kill kill bring tails, yes" - you left it to the player to make an offer, rather than respond to a reQuest.

    I fear your previous commenters are largely speaking from an imagined view of reality, rather than real experience - Ethie's speech is that of an intelligent woman with a fogged mind, shy, nervous, self-doubting and slightly euphoric. She is afraid of her own confusion but can't even remember why - clichéd but not unrealistic. She speaks like a young woman suffering the problems of an elderly woman as her minds comes unstuck, and is terribly guilty for confusing the nice people whose names she can't quite remember.

    I hate to deconstruct your point, but.. I find the criticism you've received from friends, and here in this thread, to be the kind of pretentious waffling a growing writer frequently receives from those whose expectations are immediately coloured by the awareness the friend is a growing writer. Particularly your experience at the bar - groups are brutal, individuals compassionate..

    Ah, I ramble too much for a comment thread.

    How to summarise..

    You're evidently a skilled writer who knows how to crack open the mind and get inside, as I said. You wrote a subtle piece with an uncomfortable twist that gives the player an awkward option of forcing his will and asking serious questions based purely upon the confused words of the village idiot, to hone his suspicions and gamble on a well-meaning fool and his own hunch.

    You never overexposed the point, you kept it relatively subtle while writing a, yes, endearing character.

    I actually enjoyed reading it, even purely as a sequence of text entries without connections.

    You're too hard on yourself, you take poor criticism too closely.. I daresay if your critics read this work without your pessimism or eager curiosity as a foreword, if they met this character in a well-made game, they'd love it. Victims of expectation and peer atmosphere.

    Well, enough ramble. I'll be watching your blog with interest =)

    - Jack O'Hare

  11. @anonymous
    I'd agree that she's a stereotype - she's not very plausible as a real person. One of the ways in which I screwed up this dialogue was most definately playing her for laughs in the first half.

    The Minsc example - definately. Was my dialogue in any way addressing the issues broached? I asked because I'd argue almost certainly not :-0

    Interestingly, one thing the non-gamers really zoned in on that surprised me was the 'correct' solution to the dialogue. They knew exactly which questions they should be asking to get to the bottom of it. I wasn't focusing on making the dialogue options very subtle, but still, their aptitude surprised me.

    Thanks! Part of the point of this post was to amass some criticism and to try to work out which to listen to. It's been very useful so far.

    I think you're bang on. The problem of challenge vs decision making is exactly what I'm tackling in my latest post:

  12. So annoyed by your posting thing, just tried previewing a long and thoughtful post and it got wiped, here's the abridged version:

    I kept wanting more non-committal but positive answers (not justifying people's behaviours but trying to find out if they were doing other things that were nicer), because I didn't know if people insulting her were actually being harsh in an otherwise loving way (as a way of letting out frustrations "behind her back" while still saying it in a nice tone of voice and helping/putting up with her in other ways). I didn't know how far you were going with this one, into the details and complexities, or what you considered obvious. This disconnect was especially noticeable seen as I'd recently done a seminar on child protection and avoiding jumping to conclusions, which actually influenced my playing.

    My basic approach was not to make things worse, or worry and embarrass this poor girl without more information, especially because the format implied I wasn't going to be able to solve any of her bigger social problems by talking to other people (I could imagine that I solved it after, but that kind of expansion pack is another story!). I wasn't very influenced by the rpg references because the "flowers for algernon" influences were stronger.

    So with that in mind, you can imagine that I was a little unsure about getting her to chuck away her "medicine", what if it's sedative effects were the consequence of being the fantasy equivalent of antidepressants, or antipsychotics? In a world where people are alert for magical creatures "crying wolf" about a hallucination is probably not going to endear her to the local people any more. It could be that it's real medicine and the apothecary's abusing the side effects, or it could be that his motivation is actually ok:

    What if the "new dresses" were uniforms with the apothecary trying to get her to be smart, and not letting her keep them so she doesn't scrag them on bushes? (it might even be the same dress repeatedly but she might keep forgetting)
    What if the high boxes are not fragile, and so the only job she can do in the apothecaries shop (where there will probably be lots of glassware)?
    What if he turned his offer of a bed into and order because she was disregarding her own welfare by staying outside in winter in a shed at the back of the inn?

    But with that in mind, I still went for cautious discouraging on both options, reasoning she might be ok without the medicine for a short amount of time, her current lucidity might be needed in order to sort out the mess, and it was better to report than not to.

    In terms of form, you had an advantage in an open and talkative npc, so you don't need too much structural wrangling to get the important information out, (and a lack of wrangling probably improves replay value, because it removes that weird funnel feeling you sometimes get) but I notice you were not so precious about your content that you worried about people missing it anyway, which can actually lead to a better experience in some cases, particularly in the social atmosphere around a game.

    Actually that's not too abridged a post, the rest was some observations on the reality of characters and replaying that I can't remember now.

  13. Being perfectly honest I didn't get any of the nuances or seeming point of the story when I played. I tried a few different run throughs but never got to any content that seemed to suggest anything was up. I was just trying to be kind and offer some useful advice which always ended going to look for her pills. I though I was using the most probing line of questioning too. Left me wondering what the point of the exercise was at the end of it.

    The only thread of deeper analysis that comes from my playing of it is that I flat out didn't expect anything as nuanced as what you included and therefore perhaps passed over some comments that might have had more meaning than I gave them credit for. Maybe that's because games don't normally operate on that level. Maybe.

  14. @raging_lion85
    Did you continue past the point where you go off to get the pills? You have to click the link below to return and complete the quest.